Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Holy Father And The AIDS Epidemic In Africa

The Holy Father being greeted in Cameroon on March 17

(Fifth Sunday of Lent (B): This homily was given on March 29, 2009 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Hebrews 5:7-9.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fifth Sunday of Lent 2009]

If you don’t like the subject matter of my homily this morning, I would respectfully ask you to blame the Associated Press, or the Providence Journal, or some other representative of the mainstream media.

Do not blame me.

I say that because my homily today is given in direct response to the misinformation these groups put out on the very first day of our Holy Father’s visit to Africa last week.

They have forced me, as the shepherd of this flock here in Westerly, to address a subject that I would have preferred not to deal with today. But I’m not about to stand around and allow them to poison the minds of my parishioners with their lies and half-truths.

It all began when I was at a formal dinner a week ago Tuesday. A man sitting at the table with us made the following remark. He said, “Did you hear—in a speech he made today the pope said no to condoms for the prevention of AIDS? He’s in Africa where AIDS is killing millions of people, and he said that it was wrong for them to protect themselves by using condoms.”
The man shook his head, half in disgust, and half in disbelief.

The next day, in the Providence Journal, on page A4 the headline read: “Pope dismisses use of condoms as way of preventing AIDS.” The article contained the typical liberal media slant that the pope is backward and anti-scientific and basically out-of-touch with reality.

Oh really?

Let me now read to you an excerpt from a recent online article, which contains some very important information—some of which I shared with that gentleman at the dinner a week ago Tuesday. I can almost guarantee that you heard none of this from anyone in the mainstream media in the last 14 days. Listen to these words, and then see if you think the pope is backward and delusional for opposing condoms and for promoting things like chastity and monogamy and traditional marriage:

Edward Green is director of the AIDS Prevention Research Project at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies. He wrote Rethinking AIDS Prevention: Learning From Successes in Developing Countries and reported that, between 1989 and 2001, the average number of condoms per male ages 15 to 49 in African countries skyrocketed. So did the number of those infected with HIV. South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe had the world’s highest levels of condom availability per man. They also had the world’s highest HIV rates.
Norman Hearst is a family physician and epidemiologist at the University of California, San Francisco.UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, asked Hearst to do a scientific review to see if condom promotions had reversed HIV/AIDS epidemics. His review found the contrary was true. Countries with the most condoms per man tended to have the highest HIV rates. UNAIDS refused to publish Hearst’s findings.
“Condom promotion in Africa has been a disaster,” Hearst said.
Nearly every country on the continent has vigorously promoted condoms to stem the tide of the AIDS epidemic there. But the epidemic has only grown larger.
Uganda, on the other hand, has experienced the greatest decline in HIV prevalence of any country in the world, according to the Heritage Foundation. The Ugandan public education campaign against AIDS mentioned condoms, but emphasized abstinence.
Studies show that from 1991 to 2001 HIV infection rates in Uganda declined from about 15% to 5%.
“The Ugandan model has the most to teach the rest of the world,” said Green. “This policy should guide the development of programs in Africa and the Caribbean.” (from “Church vs. AIDS in Africa,” by Sister Grace Candiru. Source:

I guess the Holy Father isn’t so backward and anti-scientific after all! Obviously he opposes condom use first and foremost because it’s sinful, but according to these experts he’s right even on a purely natural level to promote chastity and monogamy and traditional marriage!

The scientific data supports his position, not the position of the “condom crowd”.

Now you might say, “Fr. Ray, that’s all well and good, but what does all this have to do with our Scripture readings today? The homily is supposed to relate to what’s said in the readings.”

For the answer to that question, take a look at this second reading we just heard, from Hebrews 5. There we read this important line: “Son though he was, [Jesus] learned obedience from what he suffered.”

Do we? That’s the key question! Do we learn obedience from what we suffer—especially when we suffer for our sinful behavior?

Now let me make an important distinction here: Jesus didn’t suffer because of his sins; he didn’t have any. He suffered for our sins. He learned obedience in the sense that he continually said yes to his Father’s will in his human nature, even when it led to the cross. He didn’t say no and then yes, as we often do.

Sometimes we’re like Jesus, in that suffering comes our way even when we’re very good. But at other times we allow suffering into our lives because we choose to sin. There’s a direct correlation that we can pinpoint (if we’re honest with ourselves) between the sinful activity we’ve engaged in and the evil consequences we’re experiencing. And that’s the way it is in over 90% of the cases of HIV infection in Africa and throughout the world. Every study I’ve ever read has shown that immoral behavior is at the root of the problem. Only a small number of AIDS cases stem from bad blood transfusions or other non-sinful causes.

So obviously the key to changing the terrible statistics is to change people’s behavior by promoting moral living, as the Holy Father has said over and over again. And, as the situation in Uganda has demonstrated, it works! The people of Uganda (or at least some of them) have learned obedience from what they have suffered as a nation, and that obedience has helped to save lives.

For the most part, the rest of the world has not learned this kind of obedience, largely because journalists and others in the media have continued to promote the lies about condoms and to ridicule people like the pope who have the moral courage to tell the truth!

So today our prayer should be very simple and very direct: “O Lord, when I suffer the consequences of my own disobedience, help me to repent, and confess, and to be more faithful in the future. Help me to learn obedience from what I suffer. And help our world to wake up and to face reality concerning this terrible disease of AIDS—so that people will live, not die.”

Sunday, March 22, 2009

God Loves Us Just As We Are—But Too Much To Let Us Stay That Way!

(Fourth Sunday of Lent (B): This homily was given on March 22, 2009 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read 2 Chronicles 36: 14-16, 19-23; Ephesians 2: 4-10; John 3: 14-21.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday of Lent 2009]

I begin today with two questions for the parents in the congregation. (Those of you who are not parents can imagine what your responses would be if you were.)

Question #1: Do you love your children just as they are?

I hope your response to that question is a resounding Yes!—because if you say no, you’re indicating that the love you have for your children is conditional. You’re implying that they have to do something or become something or pass some kind of test in order to earn your love.

Most parents that I know, thankfully, do not put those kinds of conditions and restrictions on the love they have for their sons and daughters. They love their children, even when their children ignore them or disappoint them or hurt them or rebel against them.

One of the best examples of this phenomenon in the Bible is the Old Testament story of David and Absalom. David, of course, was the second and greatest king of the nation of Israel; Absalom was one of his sons.

He was also an ambitious young man (in the worst sense of that term). He wanted to be king himself, so he hatched a plot against his dear old dad. He got a number of people to follow him; he put together a substantial army; at one point he even drove his father out of the capital city of Jerusalem. His ultimate intention was to kill David, but unfortunately for Absalom one of David’s soldiers killed him first.

Now what’s extremely interesting is the way the Bible describes David’s reaction to his wayward son’s death. In 2 Samuel 19, verse 1, we read the following: “The king was shaken, and went up to the room over the city gate to weep. He said as he wept, ‘My son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you, Absalom, my son, my son!”

Say what, David? This boy that you’re crying for was hunting you down like you were some kind of wild animal; he wouldn’t have thought twice about killing you with a sword or with his bare hands—and this is your reaction to his death?

Well, of course it was! David loved his child unconditionally! He didn’t love what his son had done, but he did love his son.

And so it is with most parents—thanks be to God!

Which brings us to question #2: If you love your children just as they are, are you content to let them stay that way?

In this case, I hope your answer is a resounding No! David loved Absalom just as he was, but I’m sure that if David had been given the chance, he would have done everything in his power to change his son for the better!

And so it is with all good parents. They love their children just as they are—but too much to let them remain in their present condition!

Which is exactly how God loves us—except that his love is infinitely greater than the love of even the very best parents here on earth!

As Dr. Scott Hahn of the Franciscan University of Steubenville has often said, “God loves us just the way we are, but too much to let us stay that way.”

This truth is revealed in each of our Scripture readings today, most notably the gospel, where Jesus utters those famous words, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”

This is a text, incidentally, that we need to take personally—very personally. I say that because there are many baptized Catholics walking around today who don’t believe that God really loves them, or that he’s concerned with them and their day-to-day problems. They say things like, “God knows all the bad I’ve done in my life; how could he possibly love me?” or “God has the whole universe to run; he doesn’t have time to be bothered with little old me.”

When Jesus says “world” in this text he means “each and every individual who has existed or does exist or will exist until the end of time”—which, of course, includes you and me!

So when we read this passage we should not only think of the human race in an abstract way, we should also think of ourselves individually: “For God so loved ME that he gave his only Son, so that if I believe in him I might not perish but might have eternal life.”

If you’re one of those people I spoke of earlier who doesn’t believe this, then please pray today for the grace to do so—because believing this truth can change your life.

And lest we think that we have to earn God’s love in some way, the Holy Spirit has given us this second reading from Ephesians 2, where we hear these words (listen to them carefully): “God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ.”

God loves us just as we are: according to this text even when we are dead in our transgressions! This means that God loves us when we’re in the state of mortal sin every bit as much as he loved someone like Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta when she was at her holiest!

But, of course, he loves us much too much to let us remain in our sin! And so, he’ll do whatever he can to bring us to conversion. He’ll even allow us to suffer, as good parents will sometimes allow their children to suffer so that they will become better people.

Boys and girls, that’s why your parents sometimes send you to your room or take away your privileges. It’s because they care!

This is where our first reading from 2 Chronicles 36 comes into the picture. As you will recall, that passage starts off by telling us how many of the Lord’s Old Testament children in Judah were “adding infidelity to infidelity, practicing all the abominations of the nations and polluting the Lord’s temple which he had consecrated in Jerusalem.”

Not only that, they even attacked the prophets God sent to them to get them back on the right path.

So what happened?

Very simply, God allowed them to suffer; he allowed them to experience the negative consequences of the evil they were doing.

He did that because he loved them so much! He did that becuase HE KNEW THAT IT WOULD EVENTUALLY BRING THEM TO REPENTANCE AND CONVERSION!

As it says in the text, he allowed the Babylonians to conquer them, destroy their temple and carry them off into exile for 50 years—after which the psalmist wrote the sorrowful words of today’s responsorial psalm: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept, when we remembered Zion.”

This is something we all need to try to remember whenever we’re going through a difficult trial—which for some of us might be every day. God allows suffering in our lives for the same reason he allowed it in the lives of his chosen people in the Old Testament: He allows it for the sake of a greater good.

And there’s no greater good than our conversion and eternal salvation.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Is it, “Zeal for your house consumes me!” or is it, “Zeal for your house consumes me?”

(Third Sunday of Lent (B): This homily was given on March 15, 2009 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read John 2: 13-25.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Third Sunday of Lent 2009]

“Zeal for your house consumes me.”

That’s a line from the 69th Psalm, which is applied to Jesus in today’s gospel reading from John 2. The apostles watch Jesus—“gentle Jesus”—kick the money changers out of the Temple area, and this line of Scripture immediately pops into their minds.

That’s because it expressed Jesus’ attitude perfectly: As the eternal Son of the eternal Father, our Blessed Lord had a deep reverence for the sacred. And for first century Jews, the Temple was the most sacred place in the entire world.

Now I should mention at this point that these money changers were, for the most part, performing a necessary service according to Jewish law. The problem was that in the process they were also getting filthy rich by overcharging their brothers and sisters. As Jesus said in Matthew’s account of this event, they were turning the sacred Temple into “a den of thieves.”

According to the Bible, as I just mentioned, the apostles didn’t verbalize this verse from Psalm 69, they simply thought of it. But Jesus himself could have easily said it, because it expressed perfectly the deepest sentiment of his heart. And had he said it, you can be sure that there would have been a big EXCLAMATION POINT at the end of the sentence: “Zeal for your house consumes me!”

Which brings us to the question of the day: For me, would it also be an exclamation point, or rather would it be a question mark?

Jesus had a deep reverence for the sacred, and so his attitude was, “Zeal for your house consumes me (exclamation point)!”

Unfortunately, many people today lack reverence for the sacred, and so their attitude is: “Zeal for your house consumes me (question mark)?

Reverence for the sacred, of course, begins long before we come into church on Sunday morning or Saturday evening for Mass. It actually begins with how we look at and treat other people out there in the world throughout the week. Do we affirm, for example, the dignity of every human person from the moment of conception until the moment of natural death—including our enemies?

Every human being, remember, is created in the image and likeness of God.

This fundamental respect for others, which is a sign of our reverence for God, is obviously also made manifest here on these sacred grounds—beginning in the parking lot! Ah yes, the parking lot. Are you courteous to your brothers and sisters out there—especially those who are, shall we say, “more mature in years”? Do you park where you’re supposed to park in obedience to your pastor?

If you don’t, then please understand that you lack proper reverence for the Almighty!

Why? Because you are disobeying the 4th commandment of God that we just heard in our first reading! Biblically speaking, “Honor your father and your mother” means “Honor all those who exercise God’s authority over you in your life—including your pastor.”

You see, reverence isn’t just about folding our hands and looking holy for an hour a week in church. It encompasses everything we do, including, of course, what we do during—and in preparation for—Mass!

Think, for example, about how you normally dress for Sunday Liturgy. Whether we’re aware of it or not, the fact is: our attire reflects, at least to some extent, our level of reverence. Now I know there are some people who can only get to one Mass on the weekend, and to be on time for that particular Liturgy they have to come directly from work. They don’t have time to go home and clean up and dress up as they would like to.

But the rest of us don’t have that excuse. Now I’m not saying that we need to wear a tuxedo or evening gown to Sunday Mass every week; but I am saying that out of reverence for the King of kings and the Lord of lords we should make every effort to be clean and well-groomed and to dress neatly, and respectfully—and modestly. As it says in the Catechism: “Bodily demeanor (gestures, clothing) ought to convey the respect, solemnity, and joy of the moment when Christ becomes our guest.” (CCC, 1387)

And speaking of gestures and actions, here’s something I’ve been dying to say for a long time; it may come as a huge surprise to some of you: Did you realize that chewing gum is not an official part of the Catholic Mass?

I had to mention that because I think a growing number of people think it is!

When I was little, and was making a lot of unnecessary noise chewing gum, my mother would look at me and say, “The gum-chewing boy and the cud-chewing cow: the difference is, the intelligent look on the face of the cow!”

Mom had a great way of making her point.

So let’s be clear about it: Chewing gum at Mass is a big no-no! It is NOT a proper sign of reverence for Jesus Christ, who comes to us at Mass in word and in sacrament.

Neither, by the way, is text messaging! So if you’re one who does it, stop it!

And speaking of the sacrament—the Blessed Sacrament—proper reverence dictates that we should genuflect toward the tabernacle when we come into church and before we enter our pew (or bow if we’re physically unable to genuflect). It also dictates that we should genuflect to the tabernacle whenever we pass in front of it (for example, on our way to the restroom).

And, of course, proper reverence should always be made before we receive Jesus in the Eucharist at Communion time: the preferred sign of reverence being the head bow, as specified by our bishops a few years ago.

And obviously (well, maybe not so obviously) reverence for Jesus means that we should acknowledge him and speak to him AFTER we receive him in the Holy Eucharist.

That’s why leaving Mass right after Communion is also a big no-no! It is a gross sign of disrespect on par with chewing gum and text messaging! In fact, it may actually be worse than chewing gum and text messaging.

“Zeal for your house consumes me.” It’s my prayer today that if we’ve put a question mark at the end of that sentence in the past, we will learn to put a big exclamation point there in the future—like Jesus.

Dear Lord, help us always to be reverent IN your Father’s house—and OUTSIDE of your Father’s house—in imitation of you. Amen.